The Parallel Life

If losing you has taught me anything, it’s not to take people, or time, for granted.

I traveled North to see you this past weekend. How long had it been? Too long. I woke early and showered, picked up an iced coffee for the road; brought a blanket along so I could lay down and rest awhile with you in the grass. I drove carefully at first, steadily, and then the closer I got, the more I sped up. It’s true that it always feels as though you are pulling me to that place… some kind of unexplainable magnetic force. One hour and four minutes travel time, my GPS says. The sun was high in the blue sky and shining fiercely as I flew over the pavement, my old car rattling only slightly as the speedometer passed 75. What would I say to you?

Finally, I found myself winding through country fields; fields of wheat, corn, soybean. The plants swayed in the wind and the Sunday sunlight, waving hello. I pictured you there- everywhere- amongst the rows of corn; walking with horses in a pasture; even hovering in the glare the sunlight cast off an old silo. Your energy. It couldn’t be gone- YOU couldn’t be gone, not completely, not wholly. Will that ever seem real to me? Your Death. Ever since the first phone call, when your sister had said, “It’s Doug. He was in a car accident. He didn’t make it.” Ever since that cold morning, so many years ago now… still, I can’t wrap my head around that idea. I still hear your voice in my head. I still laugh at myself when I make some mistake, thinking of what you might say if you were still here with me. How you would tease me. Can you sense it? Somehow? Surely you must… this kind of love can’t be extinguished so easily.

I arrived at the cemetery at a quarter to noon. It was just as it was in my daydreams and memories- the farm fields and winding hills suddenly parting to reveal the small plot of land where you rest now. I drove slowly in through the iron gate and then to the left, back… to the very back. Your final resting spot.

I put the car in park; turn the ignition off. Insects wailing. I step out and walk toward you. Standing there, I can see how beautiful this place is- nevermind the sad truth. (That you shouldn’t be dead; that you should be here with me, living and breathing and- well. If only.) There’s a small fence several yards behind your grave which overlooks a sprawling open field. Slowly I walk around your plot – view it from all angles, trying to memorize the moment. The heat of the summer afternoon swells, but I’m unaffected.

I travel back in time in my mind: I see myself, six years younger, dressed in black, dark red hair… your coffin resting above the grave. I laid flowers on your casket and let the tears fall down my cheeks; dripping down to the dirt. To the earth. How hard it was, letting you go. How hard it still is. Some people had promised time would ease the hurting in my heart. But standing here now, so many years later, I don’t feel relief. I feel the loss of you has almost been magnified: now that I’ve truly grown up.

Can’t you come back, just for one day? Just for one hour? One minute. Just one word.

Lately, I’ve found myself stuck in the past. I re-read things I wrote years ago when we were together, and I want to go back there- live there, in those days again; back when we were happy. My mind knows there’s no changing the truth. But it also keeps me awake at night, playing out my life- but, it’s not MY life. It’s my parallel life; the one where you didn’t die; the life where we got back together and things were okay. You moved your things into my house; we carried boxes and laughed as we broke an ugly lamp. Instead of walking my dogs alone at night, I walked them with you at my side. You did the grocery shopping and I did the dishes; we fixed up the garden together. Our friends all got married and we laughed at them for conforming. We went out to dinner for your birthday and shared carrot cake. You loved me. We slept together at night, warm in each other’s embrace. We spent holidays together; we drove to your Mom’s for Christmas day and rode horses there in the summer. You got a better job; one you didn’t hate so much. You bought me a stuffed teddy bear for my thirtieth birthday, knowing how I hate the day. (You always made it a little better.) We watched TV together; we went to concerts. We got married. I was scared and you were scared but we knew we were ready; we knew we were right. Maybe we even got pregnant. Maybe we argued over which color to paint the baby’s room. Maybe you thought blue was too societally status-quo for a boy. Maybe I gave in and we compromised with yellow. You loved me, and I loved you.

(I play this game with myself where I bring myself right to the edge of tears- and then I try and distract myself before the well breaks and all comes rushing through.)

My parallel life is beautiful- like a framed piece of artwork hanging in my home. Stunningly real and untouchable, but still not factual. A take on reality. A better version of reality.
None of those things happened.
They didn’t, and they won’t, because you’re on the other side now. My parallel life is hard to visit because it’s a wish I know will never be granted.

“I forgot to bring flowers,” I say to your grave as I spread out my old blanket in the grass beside you. “I know you wouldn’t mind though.” I sit. A small blandly painted butterfly swoops into view, hovers then finally lands on your headstone. I study it’s flickering movements; effortless, simple. Mere living. It’s mostly silent here, except for the cicadas which occasionally hum hum hum until the humming grows loudly, wailing into existence. Opening a notebook, I read you a few poems aloud- Neruda, my favorite. Bittersweet; he talks of love and loss, death and life, balancing the heavy concepts out in a way that makes me think I can almost understand. Finally, I lay back, lying next to you, twisting blades of grass between my fingers. I urge myself not to think. Closing my eyes, I can feel the sun warm on my skin, and for this, I tell myself to be grateful.

Church bells. They came out of nowhere- wafting upon the July breeze to meet my ears. I look around, but there’s no one else there. Only me and the dead, heavy in their wooden boats, rowing toward the afterlife, deep underground. Still the church bells are ringing out a familiar song. It must be noon. It is.

Now that I’m here, I feel something that closely resembles comfort. It’s the emptiness I can’t stand about grief- the silent afternoons, sitting in my living room alone, curtains drawn. There’s a whole world outside, but I don’t feel apart of it very often these days. I’m more like a shell; I’m living in the past, trying to figure out why I didn’t reach out to you when you were still alive. Why didn’t I call you up? Why didn’t we talk more? I try to understand myself. I’d been raped, the year before you passed away. Those days feel so lost upon me now- almost as if they’d happened to someone else. I’d spent all my time burying my sadness under a sturdy layer of alcohol and narcotics. It worked for awhile, until it didn’t, and the layers broke down. That’s when I’d found myself in a psychiatric hospital again. It was the springtime, two years after you’d passed away. It seems so obvious now.

In the hospital, I attended group therapy and group support meetings constantly throughout each day. One class was an art therapy group. It was a mid-afternoon meeting and not many people attended. I did. I was presented with crayons (kindergarten again) and a piece of taupe construction paper. The only instructions were that there were no exact instructions. “Draw what hurts you,” the instructor had coaxed us, after a few mediocre exercises- drawing our emotions, things of that nature. I stared at the paper a long time, then I drew a tree. A tree was always a safe start. But when the time was up, I’d even surprised myself by what I’d drawn. The tree was now on a hill, and there was a grave next to it. Cartoonish clouds hung low in the sky. A fellow patient asked me,
“What did you draw?” I sadly showed him my paper. He was astonished by my talent. I didn’t understand why. I looked at the drawing, then back to my hands. Was this what was in my heart? It was. My heart had been with you ever since that day we’d buried you on the hillside. I had been grieving for you all along, I just hadn’t realized it. The truth only came out when I got so intoxicated I couldn’t stand; when I’d wind up finding things I’d written in my journals days later; simple, messy stanzas, pronouncing your death and the loss that barreled through my core. To see it so blatant before me filled me with a sadness I couldn’t explain but could only feel, deep inside my being.

And then I saw myself, out of my mind on drink, three a.m on a Thursday morning, trying to channel you. Alone, I’d crouched in the darkness of my attic, sobbing into a candle- begging you for a sign. If only I knew you were still there- somewhere, anywhere, somehow still in tune with me. Too drunk to push it down anymore. Nothing happened. I was just alone- completely alone, and how cold the world felt that way. There was no one who might understand, just as no one ever had. We had understood each other. It was unlike anything before or since.

How could I go on? How could you really be gone? I saw you in your coffin. You were wearing a suit, which you would’ve hated. I knew the truth- I’d even spoken at your funeral. Why wouldn’t it ever make sense in my mind? It still doesn’t. My friend and fellow patient had been so taken by the picture that he’d wanted to keep it. I handed the paper to him heavily, trying to push the reality of it all back again. Make it go away. I wanted to draw the curtains and pull the blankets over my head for the rest of eternity.

In the years since, I’ve grown enormously. It’s strange: I’m still living in my head all the time, and I’m still the same person I’ve always been, but I’m a bit better now. My life is quiet, and manageable. I’m older than you ever were, and this fact disturbs me to no end. Still, I have been trying. I must go on; there’s nothing else to do. I like to think that you would be proud of me. Even so, my heart is so heavy. I feel like Juliet; left behind.

The church bells have stopped ringing. Partially shaded by the large trees surrounding the graveyard, I sit up, stretching like a cat. I’m running late; I have plans to meet your mother on the other side of town. I’d written her about a letter you’d mentioned just before you passed away. You’d talked about a letter, one you were writing to me. You’d send it through the mail. But I never received a letter, and hearing this so many years later ignited curiosity in me. I could come up and look at some of your things, she’d said. The idea made me feel almost strange- what would I find? What were you going to say? Did you still love me?

I’m running out of time, but I know she’ll understand. You were always late everywhere, too. Thinking about how much we were alike chokes me up. Before I know it, the parallel life comes back to haunt me all over again and I am in tears. I force myself to speak out loud, even though it doesn’t matter;

“How am I supposed to go on? I’m not sure that I can go on,” I cry. I have to let it out here; this is what I’ve come for.